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Intel and AMD begin server war dance

Istanbul vs Nehalem EX vs Tukwila

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Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are gearing up to take each other on in the server racket and are apparently readying some major announcements.

This week, Intel passed around an invite to the IT trade press for a briefing on May 26 to talk about "the next evolution in high-end server architecture." Which could mean just about anything, really.

But the Intel announcement is very likely to concern the quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium processor, which was expected to be in the field late last year and then earlier this year only to be delayed yet again to sometime in the middle of this year. If this is indeed the Tukwila launch, as you would guess from context as Intel is saying that the new server "raises the standard in cost-effective RISC replacement solutions," then Tukwila could appear a little earlier than its latest revised schedule might have indicated. That said, it will still be late.

There's some talk over at CNET that Intel is going to launch the eight-core "Nehalem EX" Xeon 7500 processor for four-socket and larger machines, the big brother to the quad-core "Nehalem EP" Xeon 5500 processors that were launched at the end of March to much fanfare. But there is nothing in the Intel invite that confirms the event is about either Tukwila or Nehalem EX.

In any event, both Nehalem chips, as well as their desktop baby brother, the Core i7, and the Tukwila Itaniums all sport lots of performance improvements thanks to integrated memory controllers, QuickPath Interconnect, and lots of energy management and virtualization features to boot. While Intel has been cagey about when the Nehalem EX chips would ship, saying in its roadmaps in February only that the Nehalem EX chips were "targeted for production in 2H'09," there has been talk that in recent months that the Nehalem EX chips might not ship until late 2009 or early 2010.

In its Dynamic Cube BX900 blade server announcement last week, Fujitsu said it did not expect to get the Nehalem EX chips into its four-socket BX960 S1 blade until the first quarter of 2010. That might mean Fujitsu is taking its time to qualify Nehalem EXs. Or it may be confirmation that Nehalem EX chips are not going to be ready until later than expected.

It could be, of course, that the timing of the Nehalem EX launch had more to do with when AMD was expected to get its six-core "Istanbul" Opteron into the field. When Intel roadmaps indicated that would be at the end of the year, which was certainly the case back in February when Intel was showing off its roadmaps, it was no big deal. The current quad-core and hex-core "Dunnington" Xeon 7400s can compete, more or less, with AMD's current quad-core "Shanghai" Opterons. But with AMD saying three weeks ago that it was pulling its Istanbul six-shooter Opteron forward with shipments to OEMs for revenue happening in May and server partners expected to make announcements in June, it is possible - and maybe even likely - that Intel will try to get both the Nehalem EX and Tukwila chips into the field as soon as possible.

With the economy perhaps bottoming out, IT shops looking for the best bang for the buck, and chip fabs costing lots of dough just to keep the lights on, neither Intel nor AMD can afford to sit on major chip launches. And it looks like they are going to come out with their guns blazing in the next few weeks. ®

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